Balancing Group vs Individual Work

For over ten years now, my classroom has been setup for group work and talk. Currently, I have desks in groups of three and I reshuffle the groups after five class meetings using flippity. One of the courses I teach is called Honors Calculus. It is a differential calculus course that is an option instead of AP Calculus AB. What is typically done be the first week of December in the AB course takes us into May. This allows much more time to review algebra and trig ideas and to really dig into the mechanics and principles of Calculus. I don’t skimp on the level of analysis I ask for in this class, we just have more time to settle in. This year, after a conversation in the first trimester, I settled in to a routine where we have group quizzes – I write five versions of each quiz – but we have individual tests. My hope was that this would decrease the level of stress in the classroom, that it would increase the level of communication between the students, and that hearing multiple voices would increase the likelihood of ideas and techniques sticking with my students. What I have witnessed is that this process has decreased the level of stress overall because a handful of students just don’t worry much knowing that they are paired with confident kids who can carry them to the finish line, the level of conversation HAS increased, but only for a subset of the students who end up in the role of explainer, and ideas are NOT sticking. Mistakes made in November are still being made. Skills practiced (or at least skills that have been available for practice) are not embedded. On our most recent individual test about 15% of my kids did not recognize the need to use the product rule when taking the derivative of a product. I have asked a variation of the exact same question for the last three tests and there is no noticeable improvement in answering that question.

There is another feature of our class that is at play here. In the 2017 – 2018 academic year our department adopted a test corrections policy that I wrote about previously. For the 2018 – 2019 academic year the department voted down this policy. I had spent a considerable amount of time and energy promoting this policy and talking about its importance in the learning process. In the wake of this decision I reached an uneasy compromise with the two courses where I am the only instructor. They can review a test when it is returned and they can reassess on up to three questions from that test with the possibility of earning up to half of the credit they missed. There was a lot of debating in my mind and with my students before we arrived at this imperfect solution. This was in place before the conversation with Calc Honors about group quizzes. Looking back, I feel that the combination of group quizzes AND opportunities to reassess provides too much of a sense of safety net and many of my students are pretty clearly not preparing themselves too carefully or they are simply not practicing much. With the level of practice opportunities provided/the number of times to talk together in class/the class conversations led by me with examples and old assessments offered as practice/etc. I simply should not be seeing the test performances I am seeing. I am clearly complicit in all of this due to the decisions I made about assessment and the decision I have made not to collect or check HW practice. In my last post I thought out loud about the idea of frequent, low stakes, skills-based check in assessments. Had a great twitter chat last night with the #eduread crew (prompted in large part by this article ) and I went to sleep convinced that I need to incorporate some of these ideas into this course next year. I also need to remove the added layer of reassessment, it has not worked in conjunction with the group quizzes. I think I probably still need group quizzes separate from the check-in layer of ways for me to see progress AND as ways for kids to feel that they can buffer their grade with legitimate skill progress. I hope that the combination sends a couple of important messages about what I value. I really (REALLY) like the conversations that do happen in the group quizzes. I am more than willing to write multiple versions of quizzes so that conversations can happen out loud without worrying about giving away information. Our discipline, I think, allows this more easily than some others might. I do not want to collect HW daily for all sorts of reasons, but I think that frequent low stakes check ins send a message about the importance of mastery of topics. I think that I need to adjust my problem sets so that they feature more reminders of topics. My kids know how to take derivatives with the product rule. They probably need to be periodically reminded of it in a more tangible way. I also wonder about balance in point values between these three ways of assessing and reporting on my students’ progress. I do not want to retreat into a mode where I am scaring (or bribing) my students, but I do think I need to be more clear and explicit about what I value and balance it accordingly when/where I can.

As always, any words of wisdom here or over on the twitters (where I am @mrdardy) are much appreciated.

Thinking Out Loud

Been too long since I wrote, all sorts of reasons but none of them meaningful enough really.

I often use this space to air some thoughts and questions and I always value the conversations that ensue either here or over on twitter (where I can be found @mrdardy)

So, here is what I am pondering now and would love to hear some pushback or validation or further questions to help me organize my thoughts. For years – all 32 of them in the classroom – I have told my students that I do not believe in pop quizzes. I said that I do not want quizzes to be seen as punitive, I don’t want them waiting for me to play ‘gotcha’ with them. Similarly, I don’t do surprise HW checks or anything like that. However, I am thinking that I might have been wrong about this. I see (so often!) kids frantically studying (cramming) knowledge into their brains for a short term amount of time with the intent of performing some data dump on their quiz. I have even had students argue that they do not want me to answer any lingering questions from their classmates because they don’t want to forget before the quiz. As if 8 extra minutes will somehow erase meaningful understanding. However, the more I think back on these, the more I realize that the message being sent to me in these conversations is that there is not meaningful long-term knowledge that the students think is their job. Just be able to reply and re-present skills/techniques. I think I do a pretty decent job of asking interesting questions that encourage/allow/demand some real thinking and some really knowledge to be displayed. But if every assessment is announced and planned for and worried about, then I suspect that I am not really getting a meaningful picture of any developing understanding that my students are working on. I wonder if periodic low stakes check ins would be a better use of my time AND a more true picture of what the students are understanding. These check ins would take less time allowing us to have more time to talk/debate/discuss (heck, just BREATHE) in our time together. These would occur more frequently giving me more granular data, more of a sense of continuity in charting their understanding. They would not be a source of stress at home and they might (might!?!) send a different, more meaningful message about what my goals of assessment are. A downside is that these feel like they would be more directed at quick skills check ins rather than meaningful, complex and connected questions. those questions take more time, they might not be at home on a quick exit ticket (or entrance ticket?) type of check in. If I do enough of them – or if I build a system with some drops/mulligans – then any particular ‘bad day’ would not have much of an impact. If I am thoughtful about these and I enact Henri Picciotto’s ideas about lagging HW and think of these as lagging assessments, then the notion of a busy night for school or family activities, would not be a meaningful argument about why a particular quiz might be below par. If I lean in on this idea, I think I would move away from my current practice of quiz / quiz / test rhythm in many of my classes. I would probably feel less stressed about time taken for assessments and would feel that there was reasonable data about student performance and understanding. I have adopted a system of problem sets in two of the three courses I teach, open problems that are sometimes thorny but the students have seven school days to complete them and they are encouraged to collaborate on these assignments. This feature also helps ease the concern about grades to a certain degree.

So, I guess what I am asking dear reader are these questions –

Are unannounced assessments inherently unfair?

Are check ins on developing understanding reasonable data to register and count (in some way) as part of the report on progress that is expected at my school?

Is the habit of cramming an inherent part of the problem that we math teachers see all the time – Fragile knowledge or simple lack of ability to recall and reorganize information that has (allegedly) been learned in previous courses?

Thanks in advance for any wisdom shared here or over on twitter